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Willamette’s Athletic Facilities Symbolize its Past

Ned Martin

Staff Writer

Graphic by Macy Loy

Names hold an important role in informing the world around us; how we name buildings on campus informs how we think of our campus. Willamette’s facilities are all named after people from the school’s past, often those who donated to the school decades ago or important figures in the school's history. While most of us may know the names of the facilities, few know who these people were. We hope to shed some light on those immortalized by our sporting facilities.


Sparks field, Sparks pool, and Sparks fitness center are named after Lestle J. Sparks. Sparks spent over 50 years working for the University in several roles, coach, teacher, and administrator. Sparks graduated from Willamette in 1919 with a degree in Chemistry. Soon after, he taught high school chemistry in Salem and Bandon, Oregon. In 1923, Willamette University offered him a teaching position which he accepted. Sparks began as an Assistant Professor of Physical Education. Within a few years, he became the Head of the Physical Education Department. Throughout his time in Salem, Sparks served as head coach of the football, basketball, track, and tennis teams. He retired from Willamette’s faculty in 1962. However, he coached the tennis team until 1972. Sparks died at the age of 82 in 1979.


Bearcat Football plays their home games at Bush Park within the gates of McCulloch Stadium, named after Charles McCulloch. He was a partner at what is now the largest law firm in Oregon: Stoel River. McCulloch served as the president of Willamette’s board of trustees during the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1947, he donated $50,000 to the stadium's $1620,000 building budget. His donation opened the door to many interesting events in Willamette’s History. The stadium hosted a Pearl Harbor memorial when Willamette tied the University of Hawaii in 1950. Willamette’s football team held a connection to Pearl Harbor, which will be explained further down. Interestingly, in 1958, the New York Giants football team played a scrimmage on the field. Another claim to fame this stadium has is Dolly Parton’s visit in 2012. He also donated “the rare 1632 edition of Shakespeare’s Second Folio to the university.”


The Bearcats have played in Cone Field House for years. The Field House got its name from June and Edwin Cone. The couple met at Willamette University during the 1940s and moved to Eugene after graduation. They must have kissed under the star trees. June was named one of the seven outstanding seniors of her graduating Willamette class. Edwin soon after became the mayor of Eugene for 11 years. June played an instrumental role in the community as the first lady. She won numerous awards, but perhaps her most notable accolade was being a member of the Travelers Century Club. Only people who have traveled to 100 countries in their lifetime are members. Willamette honored the couple by naming the chapel and field house after them in the 1980s.

Gordie James

The Gordie James court got its name from, you guessed it, Gordie James, who coached men's basketball for 22 seasons from 1987 to 2009. He guided the team to a 357-230 record. James helped the Bearcats to the 1992-93 NAIA Division II National Championship. The university dedicated the court to his namesake on November 20th, 2010.

Roy “Spec” Keene

The baseball stadium in Bush Park was named the Roy S. "Spec" Keene stadium.. Keene’s coaching career at Willamette was an illustrious one. However, nothing can top the unbelievable circumstances his team faced on December 7th, 1941. His team was playing the University of Hawaii in Hawaii that weekend. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and the players were enlisted to defend the beach and lay barbed wire. Not until Christmas day did the team make it back to the mainland, getting passage on a luxury cruise turned hospital ship. For his coaching career, his team won 19 conference titles across 36 seasons coaching basketball and football. In 1989 the school honored him with the construction of the stadium, 12 years after his death. He is also in the Willamette University hall of fame.

John Lewis

The John Lewis field gets its name from another hall-of-fame coach: John Lewis. From 1947-1973 Lewis served as the school’s athletic director. Simultaneously he coached the baseball and basketball teams for 24 and 20 years. He won 9 conference championships between the two teams. His legacy lies in the hall of fame in the Sparks Center.


These have all been important figures to Willamette’s story, however, we must realize all but one of these people are men, and all are white. As this school claims to focus on the diversity of its student body, perhaps new buildings or remodels should be named for people that first lived in Salem or underrepresented and diverse figures of Willamette’s past. It is not to take away from these legacies of Willamette’s finest, but it is to say Willamette has not named any of its buildings in a way that exhibits diversity. Dedicating a stadium to, for instance, the Kalapuya tribes would not absolve Willamette of its past, but it could be a step toward the future.

The names of buildings and facilities not only shape the way we view our past, but also shape our future. Willamette’s history is marked by progressivism. Its first graduate was a woman, and the first black man to graduate from the university was 20 years before Congress desegregated the nation. However, it is not free of white supremacy. Willamette’s founder Jason Lee originally used the land that is now Willamette’s campus as a Methodist mission school, with the goal of “educating and civilizing” the Native children. These types of schools anglicized native children and ran rampant with abuse and the erasure of native cultures. The message here is that Willamette’s past is not perfect. Yet, with multiple fields without names like the tennis courts and softball fields, the university has an opportunity to take steps toward further progressive symbols to shape its future for years to come.

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